A guest author talks about the history of green tea
Robert Hellyer, author and associate professor of history at Wake Forest University, discussed his new book “Green with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups” at the Doheny Memorial Library on Monday. Hellyer’s book navigates a story dedicated to green tea and provides a personal account of his family’s tea processing factories.
The event, co-sponsored by USC Libraries, the USC Department of History, and green tea society ITO EN North America, marks the first in-person conference for the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture since March 2020.
Hellyer, whose family shares a personal relationship with tea through their tea processing factories in the Japanese port cities of Shizuoka and Kobe, said her maternal grandmother reserved green tea for guests and coffee for Hellyer, because green tea was a sophisticated and refined drink.
“As my grandmother and I sat in lawn chairs savoring the aroma of freshly cut grass, she would often talk about her time in Japan in the early 1930s as a merchant’s wife. of tea,” Hellyer writes in his book. “A big part of what drove me to write this book was the desire to go beyond the anecdotes of those summer days and learn more about the world of my grandmothers.”
Tea classifications, Hellyer said, can be discerned by levels of oxidation and are categorized as green tea – sub-categorized into sencha, bancha and matcha – oolong tea and black tea, the latter being the most oxidized of the teas. Hellyer said there’s an assumption that America has no standard conduct for tea, but green tea was at the center of it.
“Many American families, especially young girls, will be encouraged to have a tea set or have tea, but we don’t have coffee the same way,” Hellyer said. “Starbucks has its own everyday elegance, but it’s not sophistication.”
Tea drinking habits in the 1850s demonstrated that American consumers and even former presidents of the United States continued to drink green tea after the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, Hellyer said. Sentiment for green tea did not diminish until after the war, when anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese views arose from propaganda.
“While the British preferred black teas, after 1800 in the United States green tea acquired an aura of sophistication and was more widely consumed,” Hellyer said. “Green tea was sold at higher prices than black tea.”
Indian Ceylon, a competitor to Japan Tea – the number one national brand of green tea in the United States – sought to sell its black tea in the American market after a successful introduction into British society. Indian Ceylon changed Americans’ tastes from green tea to black tea with a strategy that involved negative publicity with racist overtones portraying Japanese and Chinese green teas as “dirty, dangerous and fraudulent,” Hellyer said.
“These ads had some impact on reducing American consumption of Japanese green tea, but not immediately,” Hellyer said. “This is because the war disrupted Indian exports from Ceylon so that Japan was able to export more tea to Britain and other European markets.”
Bolstering the reputation of black tea, Indian Ceylon argued that its tea was of higher quality because it was picked and refined by white individuals, which had long-term impacts on American consumption of Japanese green tea, said Hellyer.
Rebecca Corbett, co-director of the East Asia Library, associate university librarian and moderator of the event, said that amid growing anti-Asian hatred over the origins of coronaviruses, conversations about historical examples of anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese perceptions parallel to modernity trends are crucial to observe positive examples of interaction between North America and Asian countries.
“A lot of Japanese Americans initially struggled to live in America and not have these negative associations because of their heritage,” Corbett said. “We look at the economic and cultural history of tea as a commodity in America…its popularity over time and people’s image of Japan and how it may be related…to Japan as a brand symbol .”
Lindsay O’Neill, who attended the conference with students from her ‘General Education Seminar in Social Analysis: Drunk History, or How Beverages Changed the World’ course, said the drinks can tell an important story about expansion. and settlement to the West facilitated by corporations.
“It’s a smaller way of looking at these long-term changes,” said O’Neill, an associate professor of history at Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “I hope this gets people thinking and that USC students think more critically about what’s on their plate.”
Issay Matsumoto, who asked about the role of advertisements in promoting sencha as a “health product” to boost exports, said he attended the conference because of its intrigue with the tea, which stems from his desire to learn more about the influence of Japanese products in Asian markets.
Depending on the geopolitics of the time, tea can be culturally valued or devalued depending on its origin, Matsumoto said. From this experience, Matsumoto drew conclusions about consumption and production patterns across the waters based on Hellyer’s research and personal anecdotes.
“You can tell stories that are close to you because the speaker’s own family history is tied to that. so you can tell stories about your own family in a very important and interesting way,” Matsumoto said.